By MICHELLE L. PRICE, LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada Sen. Dean Heller accused Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen on Friday of making a visit to see separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to stage a “photo-op,” while she described the incumbent Republican as a “rubber-stamp” for President Donald Trump whose tax plan benefits the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
Heller and Rosen traded barbs, interrupted and accused each of being untruthful Friday night as they met in their first and only debate in their close contest in the battleground state.
Heller is considered the most vulnerable Republican senator running for re-election this year because he’s the only one running in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
The hourlong Friday night debate on KLAS-TV, KTVN-TV and C-SPAN brought the candidates together hours before early voting starts Saturday morning.
Both candidates touted their ability to work across the aisle, though when asked what could be done to ease a partisan standoff in Washington, Heller took a page from Trump’s playbook by blaming the media for political divisiveness.
“We have seen how they treat Trump supporters. We have seen how they treat Kanye West when he goes into the White House,” Heller said. He didn’t elaborate.
Heller and Rosen ramped up their criticisms as they discussed immigration, a key issue in a state with a 29 percent Latino population.
Rosen, who made a trip to visit U.S. border detention facilities in June, called the Trump administration’s separation of migrant families reckless. Images of Rosen’s visit later appeared in one of her campaign ads, leading Heller on Friday to accuse of missing her work in Washington to film a commercial.
“I went down there to check on children,” she interrupted. “I was doing my job.”
“Do I get a chance to talk?” Heller asked.
Despite the swipes, Heller and Rosen smiled throughout and at times asked questions of each other.
Heller criticized Rosen’s vote against the GOP tax plan passed last year and highlighted her later appearance at a news conference that called for a repeal of the tax cut.
“I voted for our strong economy. She voted against it,” Heller said.
Rosen told reporters after the debate Friday that she would not vote to repeal the tax law but that she would like to make its middle-class tax cuts permanent.
Heller answered questions from KLAS after the debate but left the building before answering post-debate questions from other reporters who gathered to cover the event.
Heller’s campaign spokesman Keith Schipper said later that the candidate had to leave to get to Elko, where Trump is holding a rally Saturday.
Nevada is a battleground that Democrats swept in 2016 and Clinton won by 2 percentage points. But during the last midterm elections in 2014, many Democrats stayed home and Republicans won key races across the state.
Lackluster turnout could keep the seat and control of the Senate in GOP hands. But Democrats are hoping a backlash to Trump will propel their base to the polls and carry Rosen to victory.
Republicans have a 51-49 control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats have a narrow path to take control in the midterms, protecting 10 seats in states Trump won while trying to flip two seats held by Republicans, like Heller’s and that of outgoing Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
Heller, a former stockbroker who hails from northern Nevada, has been in the Senate since 2011 and has never lost an election in his three decades holding national and state public offices.
Rosen is a former computer programmer and synagogue president who narrowly won her House seat in 2016 after being recruited to run by former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.
Heller once criticized Trump and returned his campaign donation. Last year, the president threatened Heller’s re-election chances when the senator held up GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But Heller has since become an ally of the president, who has made two fundraising stops for him in Nevada this year and will make his third visit Saturday.
Heller defended his embrace of the president Friday, saying that he went from once being “99 percent against” Trump to becoming his friend through cooperation.
“What happened was success. We started working together,” Heller said. “We’ve had our differences, and we’ll continue to have our differences.”
Trump’s visit to the rural area will be sandwiched in between a visit early Saturday by former Vice President Joe Biden in Las Vegas and a rally Monday in Las Vegas by former President Barack Obama, who won the state in 2008 and 2012.
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(Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., left, and Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., shake hands before a U.S. Senate debate, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, in Las Vegas. AP Photo:John Locher, Pool)